New Zealand Classic Car - - MOTORMAN -

was com­mon­place for 30 or so of the lit­tle cars to scrap for a cor­ner in North Amer­i­can races.

There was a de­light­ful sim­plic­ity about the orig­i­nal Sprite, with the pro­trud­ing headlights mounted atop the large bon­net sec­tion that was heavy to lift but of­fered great ac­ces­si­bil­ity — an en­gine change could take lit­tle more than 20 min­utes. Sadly, Bug­eye own­er­ship passed me by, and my first Sprite was a light-blue MKII with slid­ing win­dows, fol­lowed by a red 1962 Midget.

Brother Rodger ex­per­i­mented with a white Midget 1098cc, fit­ting a su­per­charger that had been adapted by Kumeu tuner Ted Thomp­son. Fit­ting a Shor­rock blower pre­sented few prob­lems and boosted power by 36 per cent, re­sult­ing in a marked im­prove­ment in ac­cel­er­a­tion.

Rodger ran the su­per­charged car at one Pukekohe na­tional meet­ing, but more suc­cess­ful was his dark green 1098cc Sprite with wind-up win­dows, pre­pared by Mis­sion Bay Mo­tors and bored out to 1220cc. This car had spe­cial ex­trac­tors, a mod­i­fied ex­haust, and lively camshaft and was low­ered and had mod­i­fied shock ab­sorbers, dif­fer­ent spring rates, a lim­ited-slip dif­fer­en­tial, and fat­ter anti-roll bars front and rear. Cor­ner­ing was vastly im­proved by the fit­ment of 13-inch Dun­lop rac­ing rubber to the wire wheels.

At a Pukekohe na­tional meet­ing in Novem­ber 1966, An­der­son fin­ished se­cond in a hand­i­cap event to Jim Boyd’s much faster Ly­coming Spe­cial, and, in the Half Hour sports-car fea­ture on the same cir­cuit a month later, the Sprite fin­ished se­cond to a Daim­ler Dart in the pro­duc­tion class. With the wind­screen and sur­round re­moved the An­der­son Sprite took se­cond in the sports-car pro­duc­tion cat­e­gory at the 1967 Pukekohe Grand Prix and won the hand­i­cap event at the Levin Tas­man meet­ing the same month. When the car was re­verted to stan­dard and sold, An­der­son said it was still re­mark­ably quick.

Mod­i­fy­ing th­ese cars (and Mi­nis, of course) in the ’60s was easy enough, and car­ried the bless­ing of BMC’S spe­cial-tun­ing depart­ment, which pro­duced tun­ing guides and of­fered a huge ar­ray of ap­proved go-faster equip­ment. The Midgets and Sprites were avail­able with

Oc­to­ber 1966, her­alded ar­rival of the 1275cc en­gine with 48kw, but this was not the more spe­cial­ized Mini Cooper S power plant, and it ran a nor­mal forged-steel crank­shaft in place of the tougher, more spe­cial­ized ni­trided-steel crank.

The 1.3-litre en­gine meant 10 per cent more power and an 11-per-cent boost in torque. The soft-top hood was now per­ma­nently at­tached, in­stead of be­ing ar­ranged with de­tach­able hood irons and cov­er­ing. Pop­u­lar­ity of the model re­mained strong, with pro­duc­tion run­ning at 350 cars a week. De­tail changes in 1970 com­prised new chrome bumpers, a re­vamped grille, black side winders, Rostyle steel wheels, re­clin­ing seats, an up­rated heater, and cabin en­hance­ments.

MG en­thu­si­asts were hardly cheer­ing when the fi­nal changes were im­ple­mented in June 1975, with the re­place­ment of the ven­er­a­ble A-se­ries en­gine with the frac­tion­ally more pow­er­ful Tri­umphde­signed 1493cc unit used in the Spit­fire and dis­con­tin­ued Tri­umph 1500. But the car’s ap­pear­ance was damned by the fit­ting of ugly black polyurethane bumpers to meet North Amer­i­can safety leg­is­la­tion, while the rounded rear wheel arches that had been in­tro­duced four years ear­lier re­verted to the flat­tened-style arches of older ver­sions. Over­all ride height was in­creased, again for US safety rea­sons, but, in fact, it made the car less ag­ile and sim­ply in­fe­rior when it came to han­dling. Un­sur­pris­ingly, en­thu­si­asts in­vari­ably favour chrome-bumper mod­els from 1972 un­til 1974.

New Zealand road test

Seabrook Fowlds, the Auck­land Austin agent, pro­vided my first MKII Sprite 1098cc road test in 1963. At that time, the new retail price was $1658, and, two years later — when I drove a Do­min­ion Mo­tors–sup­plied Midget with wind-up win­dows — the price had risen to $1810, with the Austin equiv­a­lent a few dol­lars less. By 1969, the MG had risen to $2693, $3200 in 1973, and $4500 by 1975, the last year in which the model was im­ported new into New Zealand. The first of the 1491cc Tri­umph-en­gined Midgets in Septem­ber 1974 were priced at $3900.

The car had al­ways been fun to drive, but, in 1964, was im­proved by delet­ing the quar­ter-el­lip­tic rear leaf springs in favour of half-el­lip­tic springs, im­prov­ing rigid­ity and axle lo­ca­tion. This new de­sign was not only lighter but also re­sulted in a bet­ter ride with di­min­ished axle hop over in­dif­fer­ent sur­faces, and less-sen­si­tive steer­ing. En­gi­neers were able to elim­i­nate much of the body stiff­en­ing re­quired by the old sus­pen­sion. So, while the new win­dow glass and win­dow lifts were clearly heav­ier than the old de­tach­able widescreen mod­els, the weight sav­ing in the sus­pen­sion meant that the newer car was only frac­tion­ally heav­ier than its pre­de­ces­sor.

The light rack-and-pin­ion steer­ing had long been praised for be­ing quick and ac­cu­rate, with lit­tle more than two turns of the steer­ing wheel from lock to lock. In its 1963 test of a MKII Sprite, the Amer­i­can mag­a­zine said, “The Sprite can be driven through a se­ries of fast S bends with only the slight­est move­ment of the wheel and al­though the tail tends to drift out, from body roll, on en­ter­ing a curve, it sta­bi­lizes al­most im­me­di­ately and gives the feel­ing of a com­pletely neu­tral steer­ing car.

“Due to its re­spon­sive­ness and neu­tral han­dling it is an ex­cel­lent car for the be­gin­ning sports car driver; and with the nom­i­nal ini­tial cost and good fuel econ­omy it is also ideal for the im­pe­cu­nious.”

As a re­sult of Bri­tish Ley­land ra­tio­nal­iza­tion, Sprite pro­duc­tion ceased eight years be­fore that of the Midget ended, and a larger fuel tank was fit­ted to Midgets af­ter Jan­uary 1972. Even though Midget pro­duc­tion stopped in late 1979, cars were still be­ing sold in 1980 — 22 years af­ter the first Bug­eye Sprite ap­peared. To­day, a healthy num­ber re­mains on Kiwi roads, a sure sign of the af­fec­tion felt for a rather spe­cial car.

Donn An­der­son test­ing an MG Midget south of Auck­land in 1965 (photo: Jack In­wood)

Rodger An­der­son gets out of shape in his mod­i­fied Austin-healey Sprite at Pukekohe The An­der­son Sprite in ac­tion at Pukekohe in 1966

Later rubber-bumper Midgets are not as well liked as ear­lier chrome-bumper ver­sions Neat and func­tional dash­board of one of the last of the MG Midgets

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